Note: this is my second review for Nomadland. Read the first here!
Frances McDormand in Nomadland (2020)
Played so seamlessly by Frances McDormand it’s a wonder where she begins and her character ends, Fern is a nomad deep inside. She has a real sense of belonging on the road, where home is not a structure but a feeling. Beautiful landscapes are her museum, and she is the voluntary tour guide. McDormand works her magic in collaboration with the phenomenal Chloé Zhao, who edited, co-wrote, produced, and directed Nomadland. Within the first few minutes of the film, a powerful story is told. Due to reduced demand for sheetrock, US Gypsum shut down its plant in Empire, Nevada. The shuttered town and its discontinued zip code pushed all residents to relocate. One of the residents sifting through the debris of a once thriving life is Fern. In our introduction to her journey, she holds onto her husband Bo’s jacket extra tight before bidding farewell to some belongings and starting up her trusty van. Full of personal trinkets and treasures, she built the self-named Vanguard from the inside out. Her van is her home, and has been for some time. In the aftermath of personal grief and loss, Fern is on the road in search of answers.
Chloé Zhao’s curiosity as a director is the perfect match for this story. She brings immaculate detail to the narrative and also maintains a beautiful openness in her approach. She collects human interactions like rare gems; each nomad encounter is given empathy and space for expression. Zhao introduces many of these characters in the first act of the film, as they gather around a campfire and share stories of what led them to this lifestyle. What they share in common is a gravitation towards nomad Bob Wells and his cheap RV living guide. Although brief in screen time, he takes on a nucleus role in the film as Fern (among others) visits him to share her experience in search of some guidance. As vast as all the landscapes are, it’s a small world and the people in it gravitate towards a shared connection. As Bob tells Fern in a moving scene, months or even years could pass by and he’d see the same people down the road again.
The screenplay was adapted by Zhao from Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book, ’Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century’. The book is about American nomads, many of whom were affected by the Great Recession, who embark on the road in search of work and a new way of life. Most of the locations and people in the book made it onto the screen; staying close to Bruder’s perspective gives the film a brilliant level of world building. Zhao starts with establishing location and creates the characters from there. Real nomads come to life on screen through monologues and small everyday interactions that reveal a bit about who they are. Two nomads in particular - Linda May and Swankie - are given revealing moments where they explain why they’re on the road. Listening to their stories is like hearing their souls speak. These moments are beyond moving to watch, and are the perfect example of why the film strikes a resonating chord in my heart. Zhao’s screenplay feels incredibly intuitive and personal in telling a story about this particular nomadic lifestyle. She brings so much heart to this film, and sits patiently with the people in this world to hear their stories.
To quote Chloé Zhao, “there are not many people out there as strong as Frances McDormand looking you in the eyes.” In creating the character of Fern, who might be McDormand’s alter ego, Zhao needed someone who would fit in the environment. She needed a good listener…someone who would absorb her surroundings, go with the flow, and also be deeply invested in the people she comes across. Frances McDormand’s screen presence is one of the strongest in film history, and her familiarity works to the film’s benefit as Fern becomes a guide for the audience to explore this nomadic world with. Whether it be working at Amazon, polishing rocks, or running a badlands spa, McDormand lends herself fully to the role. There are some playful moments in the film where the actor and character mesh. “Try McD,” suggests Fern when a receptionist can’t find her name on a camper registration list. McDormand’s performance is a magnificent blend of nuances, powerful stoicism, and surprises.
The character of Fern, like many others passing through in Nomadland, lost the life she knew after the Great Recession. She and her husband had lived in Empire for many years. Empire was a town Bo loved and that loved him back, so she stayed behind because “what’s remembered lives”. The film resonates as a story of grief and finding ways to cope with loss. Fern’s search brings her to a nomadic lifestyle where her self-sufficiency is tested, but there is also an excitement in seeing what’s down the road for her. She finds a special friend in Dave (the great David Strathairn), a familiar face she runs into at various camper locations. Their dynamic is so pure and genuinely lovely to watch unfold. Similar to Fern, Dave takes the odd job here and there to keep afloat. When Fern meets up with friend Linda May in the badlands, there Dave is, working as a guide for tourists. Dave and Fern share some of the most stunning scenes in the film, from wandering off into enormous rocky terrain to gazing at the stars. In tune with Zhao’s direction, Joshua James Richards’ cinematography gives the film a beautiful cinematic lens while also maintaining the openness of their natural environments.
The feeling of being in nature can be humbling and relaxing, followed by a restlessness that rushes in when you leave such a setting. The film captures this emotion so brilliantly, and it’s infused in Fern, who finds comfort in being on the road but shifts restlessly under a roof. Chloé Zhao and Frances McDormand are a match made in heaven as they explore the healing power of nature in gorgeous American landscapes. The beautiful score by Ludovico Einaudi gives melodic reminders that underneath the protagonist’s stoic exterior is a search of life after loss among a community of grieving people. Nomadland is a stunning character study and a moving portrait of learning to live with grief. Zhao tells a timeless story about self-sufficiency, unshared emotions, and the lonely ache in finding a sense of belonging during times of isolation.